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Law Students on Workers' Rights Series

Robotics Process Automation and Workers’ Rights

June 16, 2020

Without Labor Laws, Automation Will Cause A Massive Labor Disruption

By Alex C.

Law Students on Workers’ Rights Series

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

Technology was supposed to be the great equalizer. The solution to our unjust world where we humans were unknowingly subject to our unconscious biases, made mistakes, discriminated (knowingly or unknowingly), and failed to provide large swaths of the populace any chance at achieving the American Dream. 

Ambitious as our hopes and dreams for technology were, as we discover more and more about how it has changed and shaped our world, we discover that it is not the great equalizer: it is instead the personification of the collective bias we sought to eliminate in the first place, and the harbinger for further inequality and labor disruption.

It is technology that presents the biggest challenge to workers’ rights in the future, and specifically, robotic process automation. 

Robotics process automation (RPA) is an artificial intelligence technology that is best understood in two phases. In phase one, the “robot” sits in the background of an employees computer, often without the employees knowledge, and simply observes the employee work. Every mouse movement, every click, and every letter typed is recorded, analyzed, and stored for later reference. Once this software has collected enough information about all the tasks that an employee does, and how that employee goes about accomplishing those tasks, it can begin doing those tasks itself (phase two), in theory with a smaller error rate, greater efficiency, and for significantly reduced cost.

This may seem futuristic, and in truth the technology is still in its early stages, but it has already been implemented in some of the worlds most recognizable businesses, from Sprint to Coca-Cola to Hitachi to Google. 

Employers claim that these systems will allow them to redeploy employees to do more interesting work, and overall productivity will rise with no reduction in headcount. Unions and labor activists argue that this technology will be used to reduce headcount. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle: although RPA will likely lead to higher productivity, it will likely also lead to a major disruption in employment. There’s only so much “interesting work” to do, and not all employees have the skills to do “interesting work.” 

Further, the technology is continuing to develop, and as it becomes more sophisticated, we should expect wider adoption. Ironically, wider adoption further helps this technology become more sophisticated, and this positive feedback loop will only serve to increase the severity of labor disruption.

The time I spent working at a union side labor law firm taught me many things, among them the current environment of labor in the U.S. However, right across the hall from that office was a company focused on RPA, and although we were actively fighting to preserve the rights of labor at that time, we were woefully unequipped to handle the task that the company across the hall would create tomorrow. 

But the issue is not that any one firm is failing to look to the future: rather, the issue is that the legal frameworks that exist for labor lawyers to combat RPA are insufficient, as are the legal frameworks that currently exist to handle the effects of the massive labor disruption RPA is poised to cause. 

Without legislation that aims to solve these problems, by the time RPA truly takes hold and begins to decimate the labor market, it’ll already be too late, and labor law will be unequipped to handle the crisis.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Automation has already drastically changed our workforce – and new technologies like robotics process automation will only speed up that process, as Alex C. argues in his essay. Without stronger workplace protections, millions could find themselves pushed out of the workforce. And the most vulnerable to job loss often include members of protected classes. Across the country, independent contractors already receive fewer labor protections than traditionally employed workers. The solution, as Alex C. reminds us, starts with stronger labor laws. 

Alex C. earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia before working for a union side labor law firm. In fall 2020, Alex will attend the University of Virginia School of Law. 

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience as an NYC employment lawyer. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $140 million for clients.